Communications and parties
LAST FRIDAY, THE THIRD PANEL DISCUSSION in a two-day conference was held. The panel discussion was about communications and campaigning; and it was part of the First Asian Political Parties Workshop on Efficient Party Management, co-sponsored by Centrist Democratic International Asia-Pacific and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. (In case you’re wondering who the Centrist Democrats are, they’re what the Christian Democrats have decided to rename themselves). I had the privilege of moderating the discussion which was participated in by Amarjargal Rinchinnyam (former prime minister of Mongolia and currently an MP), Ung Huot (deputy secretary-general of the Funcincpec Party in Cambodia), and Pawan Khera (political secretary to the chief minister of Delhi).
Amarjargal discussed communications from a reformist point of view. He recounted the seesawing electoral experience of his party (which took over from the communism in 1990; defeated by ex-communists in 1992; won again in 1996; defeated in 2000; obtained a tie in 2004), which suffered from a handicap his former communist opponents didn’t have. According to him, democracy and a market economy are good, but are hard to defend if both aren’t backed by concrete results. On the other hand, communism or post-communist Socialism had a built-in excuse for its failure: there are so many internal and external factors that can be denounced as impeding Socialism. He further suggested that there’s a rule of thumb reformist politicians ought to learn early: sometimes the public doesn’t want to hear the truth.
Two views of the Mongolian speaker struck me in particular. The first was: political parties today face a challenge; NGOs and civil society, and other “non-membership party organizations” exercise many of the functions formerly performed by parties. These non-party entities, which increasingly play an important role in politics, pose a challenge: what is left for parties to do?
His other observation concerned Grand Coalitions in parliamentary systems (his reformist party and the party of the ex-communists each won exactly 50 percent of the seats; in Germany a similar thing happened recently, resulting for a while in a political paralysis). He said Grand Coalitions work only when there is a consensus on big, strategic issues; if the partners in the coalition are only interested in the splitting of positions down the line, the coalition is almost guaranteed to break down the moment some party functionary gets upset somewhere.
Ung Huot discussed the highly scientific methods he used in figuring out how to “sell” his party to voters in 1993, when Cambodia had elections organized and supervised by the United Nations. To the “Four P’s” (Product, Placement, Promotions, Prices-or in political terms, Prizes), he added a critical fifth: Planning, which he says has to begin on the day after the elections, if the party is to win the next. Suggesting that “governments never lose elections, the opposition only wins elections,” he emphasized the need for parties to craft messages that are short, straight to the point, and understood by the majority of voters.
Khera disagreed with the Cambodian: governments, he said, can win and not merely stave off defeat. He suggested that effective campaigning requires politicians to be “dream merchants.” He didn’t believe parties can ensure success by trumpeting their achievements. For example, in Delhi, the Congress Party government built 60 flyovers in five years: but the electorate, he said, didn’t view it as an achievement; instead, it saw them as things the government owed them. Which meant that to be reelected, the party must tell voters how it would solve the traffic situation (and not what it had done to alleviate traffic thus far).
He was also emphatic about the dangers of confusing message delivery with what politics calls for: communication that is one-sided. The Congress Party wrested control from the incumbent BJP Party, among other things, because the BJP prime minister relied on advertising and sending text messages and programming pre-recorded phone calls, which voters found arrogant. In contrast, Sonia Gandhi had her party go on “road shows,” in which candidates interacted with voters. He also discussed how regular dialogue helps address criticism and allows voters to let off steam, which means, whatever the record of the party, voters are less likely to hold grudges against leaders come election time. In the end, he said, Indian voters can forgive many things, but arrogance isn’t one of them-and all too often, politicians forget that a great part of their success depends on their ability to listen.
Parties, Khera suggested, cannot consider the electorate consumers to be manipulated according to marketing strategies. There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction; and there’s the need not only for effective communicators to have charisma, but for this to be replicated throughout the organization: top-down campaigns are weak; campaigns that delegate authority succeed.
The discussion was so interesting that Sec. Heherson Alvarez only fell asleep twice-for a couple of minutes each time. Questions from the floor were quite challenging and promoted vigorous debate. Each of the speakers provided useful case studies of how countries facing challenges, similar to the ones we’re faced with, have tried to build stronger parties while responding to traditional challenges (poverty, weak institutions) and coping with new problems, such as the increasingly dominant role of mass media (which provide opportunities but incur gigantic campaign costs.)